Published in Journal of Hispanic Philology, 15 (1991), 97-101.
The Editor's Column:
Nicaragua to Tallahassee
by Daniel Eisenberg
The trip described took place in 1981. Previous installments are in Volume 11, No. 3, Volume 13, No. 2, Volume 14, No. 1, and Volume 15, No. 1.
Nicaragua had more foreign tourists than anywhere
since Cuzco. They had come to help the sandinistas, or at least to
engage in politically correct tourism. Besides the revolution, there was
little to see in steamy Nicaragua. The whole country had an air of trauma
and exhaustion. On the road from Costa Rica, other travelers gave me a healthy
dose of Nicaragua's troubles, but once we crossed the border no one cared,
or dared, to bend my ear about anything. Since my visit it has gotten
considerably worse. Food, health care, safety, transportation, and electrical
power have gotten increasingly problematical. For lack of bottles, drinks
were sold in plastic bags, and President Ortega asked the population to reduce
its consumption of medicine.
Thanks to the 1972 earthquake, which indirectly made possible the sandinista victory, downtown Managua no longer exists. Block after block is completely vacant. Occasionally squatters occupied a fragment of a building still standing. The cathedral walls still stood, roofless, adorned with huge posters of Lenin and Sandino. The only new building was the Teatro Rubén Darío, on the lake. Buses continued on their old routes through the empty downtown. Since it sloped slightly towards the lake, one could gaze over it like a large, grassy football field.
The atmosphere was depressing. (1) Automobile dealerships were empty and abandoned. Only the cheapest of paper was available for magazines, and movies were either what Moscow sent for free (Moscú no cree en lágrimas), or ancient, discolored prints. The spectators didn't seem much taken with Russian movies: "Que nos manden algo que nos divierte" was overheard.
I spent my one day of Nicaraguan sightseeing in León, birthplace of Rubén Darío. It was bombed during the war, and several central blocks resembled scenes I'd only seen in Spanish Civil War or World War II news footage. I shared a room with an English fellow at what I think was the only air-conditioned establishment in León.
Two nights of sad Nicaragua were more than enough. To cross the border into Honduras, after hours of bureaucratic delay on the Nicaraguan side, was a great relief. "¡Viva Honduras!" was my comment as we crossed the little bridge, much to the amusement of the driver. Ticabus at that time still had a network of bus routes north to Guatemala. It was one of their tickets to Honduras that had allowed me to get, in San José, a Nicaraguan visa.
To bypass El Salvador, whose civil war made
it too dangerous for me, I had researched and planned a bypass: a zigzagging
route across Honduras, entering Guatemala at a remote but legal crossing.
While the bus continued to El Salvador, a Ticabus van took the local passengers
to Tegucigalpa. On the verge of the American buildup that was to start the
following year, the Peace Corps had a contingent in Honduras, and the first
Air Florida and Miami Herald signs appeared on shops. After a night in
Tegucigalpa, a van going to San Pedro Sula dropped me at the junction of
the road to Santa Rosa de Copán and the Guatemalan border. It was
too late in the day for another bus, and after wondering whether I would
be stranded, an agronomist picked me up and took me into Santa Rosa. After
checking into a modest hotel we went to a bar.
Few tourists make it to remote Copán; no planes landed on the dirt airstrip. The next morning I had the large site almost to myself. They were the first Mayan ruins I saw. Of course one wonders who the builders were, and what happened to them. Slanted stone walls marked off the court of some lost game. The guidebook described it generically as "El juego de la pelota." Like most of the archeological sites, it was discovered by an American. Those not discovered by Americans were discovered by Europeans.
Because the morning was spent at the ruins,
I missed the morning van over a dirt road into Guatemala, so it was hitchhiking
again. Passports are stamped leaving Santa Rosa. The men at the customs office
perused a well-thumbed pornographic magazine, confiscated from some
I was picked up by a young Swiss doctor, who worked treating river blindness in Guatemala. Entering Guatemala, the immigration official was entitled to an extra dollar because we interrupted his lunch. He asked the doctor a long question about his health, and was told what medicine he needed. The immigration officer's family was in Guatemala City.
Without stopping in the little colonial towns of eastern Guatemala, the doctor and his wife dropped me at the main east-west highway. They went left toward the capital, I right towards the Atlantic, the Petén jungle, the Mayan ruins of Tikal, and the only road to Belize. It was late in the day, and a very hot ride in a truck cab got me to Morales, the head of the unpaved Petén highway.
The following morning I bought a ticket and boarded a crowded bus, which like all buses in Guatemala and Belize resembled what we would call a school bus. This was my last installment of a lifetime's dose of jungle. Any jungle one can get to by road is, unless the road is very new, devoid of most of what one wants to see. It's not hard to reach less-developed parts of the jungle on foot or via river transportation; there are passenger-carrying boats along any inhabited river. (In Manaus I saw one named "Joseph ab Arimatea.") Infections and parasites are a real danger, however, and medical help is days away. There were plenty of stories about foreigners who had gotten deathly ill in the jungle.
Guatemalan roads had military checkpoints. Travelling at night was hazardous, because the checkpoints were not well illuminated and going through one without stopping might bring gunfire. All the men had to get out of the bus and line up, documents in hand, for inspection. Women stayed in their seats. If it started to rain, the soldiers waved everyone back on the bus and let us go unchecked. It wasn't worth getting wet over.
The small, isolated city of Flores is the administrative center of northern Guatemala. It is on an island, though there is a causeway with a road. Although I was the only diner in a restaurant, the service was still terrible. I was serenaded by a tape recorder with a wow, which could not be repaired closer than Guatemala City. A large antenna for "Radio Petén" sat on another island in the lake, but there was no television. Movies were weekly. During a walk around the town I stumbled onto the jail, which looked colonial as could be: a large stone room, with bars on the one window, was crowded with some thirty blacks. In Jamaican-sounding English they loudly protested their innocence, asking me to take messages and help them get out. A guard told me that they were all beliceños, imprisoned for drug smuggling.
From Flores, buses left for anywhere with a
passable road. Destinations were painted on the garages. One garage
optimistically announced a direct route to Mexico along a road that didn't
yet exist. The proprietor said that the solution was "andar." "A ustedes,"
by which he meant non-Hispanic tourists, "les gusta andar. Yo lo he visto."
A bus made a daily round trip to the Mayan ruins at Tikal. Besides stone pyramids, there was a village of camping facilities, places to spread a sleeping bag under mosquito netting, hotels for groups of "adventure travellers," rustic restaurants, large water tanks, and the like. A paved runway large enough to accommodate jets had been cut in the jungle; the ticket office was a tiny thatched hut, ostentatiously picturesque. None of the restaurants was to the taste of our bus driver. He stopped, half an hour after we started back, for an hour lunch break. Punchy from too many months on the road, I asked him, inanely, why he hadn't eaten his lunch during our three hours at Tikal. His predictable answer: "No tenía ganas. Si quiere viajar rápido, tome un taxi." Really there was no reason to get back to Flores an hour early. There wasn't anything to do anyway.
From Flores another bus made a daily round trip to the border of Belize. From there, taxis made the trip to the first town with bus service, San Ignacio. It felt strange to see English newspapers and paperbacks for sale. Adding to the sense of strangeness of the place is that Belize is a black country (it actually became independent later that year; jeeps with English soldiers went by every so often). After some hours, and lunch in what seemed to be the only restaurant, a bus took me to Belmopan, the new capital that seemed something between a university campus and a town not yet built. (The fire station sat on an empty street in the middle of nowhere.) Another bus, coming in from "P.G." (Punta Gorda), took me to Belize City, where I felt it prudent to take a taxi rather than walk. It was the first city since Cartagena in which I felt unsafe.
Belize City had no sewage system, with predictable consequences. It also had no computer links; to make a reservation on flights leaving from elsewhere than Belize, a travel agent would send a telegram to Miami. My one night in Belize, a young man came into the rooming house where I was staying to deliver marijuana to one of his customers. Delivery made, he insisted on walking with me three blocks to a restaurant, and sat down at my table. I got a non-stop, unpleasant rap about how I should buy marijuana from him, there was nothing to worry about, man.
Coming into Mexico from the south gives one
an impression of prosperity and sophistication, just the reverse of the effect
of Mexico's northern frontier. Mexico's standard of living is a solid cut
above that of its southern neighbors. For this reason Mexico, like the U.S.,
has a considerable problem with illegal immigrants.
The nondescript bus from Belize pulled into the station in Ciudad Chetumal, about as remote a city as Mexico has, but Mexico all the same. The overcrowded bus station, badly in need of a new coat of paint, was the first I'd seen since Colombia. Buses that are many hours late arriving at parking lots where there is no place to sit down, nothing to eat, and no toilets give one a different perspective on even modest bus stations.
After a few hours in Chetumal an air-conditioned bus with comfortable seats sped me through the jungle on a new, wide road into Mérida. My accommodations were in an airy, sunny colonial house, filled with plants and birds. There was no air conditioning, but with huge fans one scarcely missed it. The university had an FM radio station, the first such since Brazil. Yucatán has a strong sense of regional identity, of being part of Central America, which begins geographically, though not politically, at the Isthmus of Tehuántepec. Yucatecas are pretty and smile a lot, but, alas, I was too "travelled out" to care. I visited Chichen Itzá, where busloads of American tourists, most based in Cozumel, visited "Mayaland." To someone not an archeologist, one Mayan ruin looks a lot like another. Uxmal had a sound and light show, a French type of tourist performance in which lights are shined on monuments and narration tells facts about them. In the case of the Mayans these are mostly guesses. No one knows what caused the decline of Mayan civilization.
I bought some guayaberas and a bottle of sarsaparilla, which broke and soaked my clothes on the trip home. I cashed in my Miscellaneous Charges Order, something like a gift certificate for an airplane flight that I was carrying as evidence of solvency. A Guatemalan 707, arriving from Tikal, took me from Mérida to New Orleans, where again I was searched for drugs. The fellow in front of me had marijuana, which the customs officer discarded and let him leave. I walked out to the front of the terminal, took a city bus to Canal Street, and by midnight Trailways had me back in Tallahassee. The patriarch live oaks with their Spanish moss were as dignified as ever, but the small cities we rolled throughBiloxi, Mobile, Pensacola, Niceville, Panama Citynow seemed even more boring, without history and with only traces of style or spirit of any sort. Awaiting me were newspapers, telephones, a VCR, sackfuls of mail, summer classes to teach, this magazine to publish, housesitters who hadn't paid their modest rent and had run the oil tank dry, and a car that wouldn't start. The trip was over.
I would like to express my appreciation to Florida State University, which granted me in 1980-81 a sabbaticalthe only one I have hadfor the purpose of travel.
1. It was laterduring my second visit to Costa Rica (see JHP, Volume 10, No. 1)that I learned something about the sad history of Nicaragua. It is the flattest and (with Guatemala) the most violent of the Central American countries, two facts which are related. The original plan for a Central American canal was for a sea-level canal through nearly flat Nicaragua. Although this would have been a smaller engineering project than the Panamanian project which replaced it, for political reasons the Nicaraguan canal has never built. The unstability provoked by its geography has led to more American invasions and longer occupations than in any other Latin American country. While these were presented at home as altruistic, they were at least as commercial in motive, and violent and repressive in practice. They are remembered fondly by no one in Nicaragua, to my knowledge. Nicaragua is also the only country to have an American president, William Walker of Tennessee, a colorful character who died there, refusing English offers of rescue. I would like to thank Napoleón Chow for his assistance with facts about Nicaragua.